Andy Larsen: There’s more to the Pew poll about the LDS Church’s image problem

Deeper findings contain better news and worse news for the faith.

(Image courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints)

There’s no doubt about it: Utahns care a lot about what the outside world thinks of us. I’ve seen this in responses to my data work and in Jazz coverage. What people are saying about the Jazz matters almost as much as how the Jazz are actually faring on the court.

So I probably shouldn’t have been surprised when a story by our esteemed religion writer, Peggy Fletcher Stack, on a Pew Research Center poll about how Latter-day Saints are viewed in America generated a lot of attention — and a lot of reader questions.

Yes, “Mormons,” as they are referred to throughout the poll, are viewed more unfavorably than their more prominent religious counterparts. But, spurred on by our readers and the public interest, I wanted to see if a deeper dive into the data could shed any further light on this seeming dislike.

Turns out, there was:

The top-line results

Understandably, the main takeaway for most readers was that fewer Americans view The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints favorably than other religions.

But there was some extra nuance. A whole lot of people had relatively neutral views of the Utah-based church, and 19% of respondents said they didn’t know enough about the religion to answer the question — the second highest of any group.

Of those responding negatively about Latter-day Saints, most felt only “somewhat unfavorable” rather than “very unfavorable.” The same can’t be said about atheists or evangelical Christians.

Unfortunately, despite some reader questions specifically about this, I don’t feel confident in comparing these results to previous polling about how Americans felt about the church.

In general, though, I’m impressed with the methodology of this survey. Pollsters selected random addresses among a statistically representative sample, then incentivized those people to participate in an online survey. It was easy to fill out and had a high response rate — which pollsters then again weighed to equal population benchmarks. It’s scientifically sound work.

The previous Pew polls looking at religious group favorability (in 2017 and 2014) used a pretty unusual methodology. Pollsters asked the 10,000-plus respondents to describe how they felt on a zero to 100 scale, dubbed a “feelings thermometer.” Mormons got a 54-degree response in 2017, and a 48-degree response in 2014. I’m not sure how that corresponds to the more traditional favorability scale used above.

Removing the ability to rate yourself

There’s another point in favor of the church’s ratings being a bit skewed.

Most of the other religions in the poll are simply larger than Utah’s predominant faith. People tend to view their own religious group extremely favorably. So if you remove those respondents rating their own religion, you end up with slightly more equitable numbers.

Two notes here. First, the Protestant lines have been removed in this instance because the poll’s questions used different denominational definitions for Protestant groups.

Second, the distinguishing lines between “very” and “somewhat” favorable or unfavorable have been removed again. That’s due to how Pew reported these numbers. It didn’t give more discrete data for these subsequent questions.

Latter-day Saints still come out most unfavorable in this sample, but it is a little closer than before.

How people who know one or more Mormons think about Mormons?

The church’s relative size comes out in another aspect of polling. As our story noted, fewer than half the respondents (43%) said they knew a Mormon. So how did those who knew a Latter-day Saint respond differently when compared to those who don’t?

Interestingly, those who knew a Latter-day Saint were 9 percentage points more likely to have a favorable view and more likely to have an unfavorable view of the church overall than those who didn’t.

That result was different than those seen in other religions. For those others, whether you knew someone in that specific group generally made it far more likely you would respond favorably to their religion as a whole.

Why is that? The Pew polling doesn’t tell us. Maybe many of the Latter-day Saints people knew were proselytizing missionaries, who might come across as more pushy. Maybe it’s because Latter-day Saints, outside of Utah, are more likely to find themselves among a minority. Or maybe there’s some other aspect of Mormon culture that tends to draw more ambivalent responses than other religions. We can’t say.

We can say, though, that people rarely dislike only Latter-day Saints alone. Only 3% of respondents said that they had an unfavorable view of Mormons and no other religious group. The other anti-Mormon responses all said they didn’t favorably view at least one other religion.

The church declined to comment on the poll results.

How religions feel about one another

This was another surprising part of the poll: How respondents from each religion felt about other religions. Here are the differences between favorable and unfavorable ratings from each group (the left column) for each religious group beyond its own (the top row).

Latter-day Saints view other religions, and even atheists, positively. They view Muslims least positively of any faith, but still give them a whopping positive rating of 37.

The optimism is impressive. Opinions about Latter-day Saints, however, are nearly uniformly negative — with the exception of Catholics for having that positive rating of 2 of Mormons.

Protestants, atheists and agnostics, meanwhile, all seem to have negative views of other religions other than Judaism. Catholics see other religions more positively, but still nowhere near as positively as Latter-day Saints.

Partisan differences

The final aspect of the poll examined the views of religious groups by political loyalties, separating Republican and Republican “leaners” from Democrats and Democratic “leaners.”

You might anticipate that Democrats view Latter-day Saints less favorably than Republicans do — perhaps understandable, given church membership’s well-documented tendency to vote for the GOP. But even a majority of Republicans view the church negatively.

The differences are significantly less than the partisan differences between how other religions are viewed. Protestants, Catholics, Muslims, Atheists and, especially, evangelical Christians see significantly larger differences of approval between Republican and Democratic opinion. Only Jews have more bipartisan equality.

In the end, I am a tad surprised at the breadth of Latter-day Saint dislike in our country. From Republicans to Democrats, from different religious groups to even nonreligious groups, and even from those who know a Latter-day Saint personally — these groups seem to have, on balance, a negative view of the church.

It usually isn’t a “very unfavorable” view. More often, it’s just “somewhat unfavorable.” Still, statistically, it seems that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints simply isn’t well-liked overall in America.

Andy Larsen is a data columnist for The Salt Lake Tribune. You can reach him at alarsen@sltrib.com.

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